Young people * Women's health * Weight loss

New weight loss pill may be available over the counter soon

zone image The prescription only drug orlistat (brand name Xenical or Alli) may be available from your chemists soon - but beware of the side effects!

The anti-obesity drug, orlistat - also known under the brand name Xenical, may be for sale over the counter this year. Currently available from GPs on a prescription-only basis, a half-strength version of the drug is expected to be available from chemists in 2009 under the name Alli.

Orlistat is an anti-obesity drug that binds to stomach enzymes (lipases) responsible for breaking down the fats in foods. By interfering with this process, it stops about 30% of fats in a meal being absorbed, and they pass through the body undigested. This helps those trying to lose weight.

However, the drug can also interfere with the absorption of various vitamins, so people trying to lose weight are recommended by the manufacturers to take a multi-vitamin pill daily.

Clinical trials have shown that orlistat (60mg) used in combination with a lower fat and reduced calorie diet, can result in users losing 50% more weight than dieting alone. It is meant to be used to motivate individuals to continue with healthier diets and lifestyles and not as the only means of weight reduction.

Side effects are mostly associated with unabsorbed fat passing through the body. The manufacturers, GlaxoSmithKline have stated that users may feel "an urgent need to go to the bathroom." As well as diarrhoea, other side effects may include flatulence (gas) with discharge, fatty or oily stools, abdominal pain or discomfort, low blood sugar levels, headache and flu.

As a drug, it should not be used in conjunction with any other medication without consulting your GP. It is not recommended for individuals with digestive disorders, metabolic conditions, thyroid problems, eating disorders, women who are pregnant and breastfeeding. The contraceptive pill may be less effective due to the diarrhoea. Anyone with a medical condition should pay a visit to their GP before using it.

Additional information for this article was supplied by the European Public Assessment Report.

This article was published on Wed 7 January 2009

Image © Knut Ekanger -

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